The financial markets have been hit by a tsunami on the heels of idiotic debt negotiations, a head-scratching credit downgrade, and slowing economic data after a wallet-emptying spending binge by the government. These chain of events have forced many investors and speculators alike to shoot first, and ask questions later. Is this the right strategy? Well, if you think the world is going to end and we are in a global secular bear market stifled by a choking pile of sovereign debt, then the answer is a resounding “yes.” If however, you believe the blood curdling screams from an angered electorate will eventually influence existing or soon-to-be elected politicians in dealing with the obvious, then the answer is probably “no.”
Plug Your Ears
Anybody that says they confidently know what is really going to happen over the next six months is a moron. You can ask those same so-called talking head experts seen over the airwaves if they predicted the raging +35% upward surge last summer, right after the market tanked -17% on “double-dip” concerns and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke gave his noted quantitative easing speech in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I’m still flicking through the channels looking for the professionals who perfectly envisaged the panicked buying of the same downgraded Treasuries Standard and Poor’s pooped on. Oh sure, it makes perfect sense that trillions of dollars would flock to the warmth and coziness of sub-2% yielding debt in a country exploding with unsustainable obligations and deficits, fueled by a Congress that can barely blows its nose to a successful negotiation.
The moral of the story is that nobody knows the future with certainty – no matter how much CNBC producers would like you to believe the opposite is true. Some of the arguably smartest people in the world have single handedly triggered financial market implosions. Consider Robert Merton and Myron Scholes, both renowned Nobel Prize winners, who brought global financial markets to its knees in 1998 when Merton and Scholes’s firm (Long Term Capital Management) lost $500 million in one day and required a $3.6 billion bailout from a consortium of banks. Or ask yourself how well Fed Chairmen Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke did in predicting the credit crisis and housing bubble.
If the strategist or trader du jour squawking on the boob-tube was really honest, he or she would steal the sage words of wisdom from the television series secret agent Angus MacGyver who articulated, “Only a fool is sure of anything, a wise man keeps on guessing.”
Listen to the “E”-Word
If you can’t trust all the squawkers, then whom can you trust (besides me of course…cough, cough)? The answer is no different than the person you would look for in other life-important decisions. If you needed a serious heart by-pass surgery, would you get advice from a nurse or medical professor, or would you listen more closely to the top cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic who performed over 2,000 successful surgeries? If you were looking for a pilot to fly your plane, would you prefer a 25-year-old flight attendant, or a 55-year old steely veteran who has 10 million miles of flight experience? OK, I think you get the point…legitimate experience with a track record is key.
Unfortunately, most of the slick, articulate people we see on television may look experienced and have some gray hair, but the only thing they are experienced at is giving opinions. As my great, great grandmother once told me, “Opinions are a dime a dozen, but experience is much more valuable” (embellished for dramatic effect). You are better off listening to experienced professionals like Warren Buffett (listen to his recent Charlie Rose interview), who have lived through dozens of crises and profited from them – Buffett becoming the richest person on the planet doesn’t just come from dumb luck.
If you are having trouble sleeping, you either are taking too much risk, or do not understand the nature of the risk you are taking (see Sleeping like a Baby). Things can always get worse, and the risk of a self-fulfilling further decline is a possibility (read about Soros and Reflexivity). If you are determined to make changes to your portfolio, use a scalpel, and not an axe. The recent extreme volatility makes times like these ideal for reviewing your financial position, goals, and risk tolerance. But before you shoot your portfolio first, and ask questions later, prevent a prison sentence of panic, or your financial situation may end up behind bars.
Wade W. Slome is a CFA and CFP® at Sidoxia Capital Management.
Disclosure: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds.
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